"The future of work"
Royal Society of NSW and Four Academies Forum
His Excellency General The Honourable David Hurley AC DSC (ret'd), Vice Regal Patron of the RSNSW
Date: Tuesday 15 September 2015
Venue: Government House, Sydney
The Royal Society of NSW and Four Academies Forum was the inaugural collaborative event between the Society and the NSW-chapters of the four national Academies. The Forum was hosted by the vice regal patron of the Society, His Excellency The Hon General David Hurley at Government House on Tuesday, 15 September 2015.
The speakers at the forum were Professor Mary O'Kane, Chief Scientist and Engineer of NSW who provided framing comments about the technological challenges that the working environment would face over the next 20 years or so and the need for NSW and the nation to embrace innovation and change and the introduction of new business models. Professor Andrew Holmes of the Australian Academy of Science, Professor John Fitzgerald, President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and Dr Alan Finkel, President of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering gave valuable insights from their various perspectives and a panel discussion responding to these issues was led by Professor Glenn Withers President-elect of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. In addition, there were five other speakers drawn from senior Fellows of the four Academies. They were Professor Thomas Maschmeyer, Professor Hugh Durrant Whyte, Professor Amarjit Kaur, Professor Bettina Cass, and Professor Julianne Schultz. The discussion panel, led by Professor Withers consisted of Dr Eric Knight, Professor Vera Mackie, Mr Anthony Roediger and Mr Jeremy Webster.
Professor Alan Finkel
issues covered were far-reaching: "techno-optimism" – humanity has a good track record for solving problems by the application of technology. We should not forget the enormous challenges of the changing environment that will take place over the next couple of decades but we should not forget the capacity of humans to adapt. One of the best ways that this adaptability presents itself is through innovation of entrepreneurship and resort examples of development of start-up technologies that have become very successful businesses. Yet many of the challenges that face the workforce will not be technological in their nature, even though they may have their origins there. The role of social policy, particularly around carers as the population ages and families with both parents participating in the workforce become the norm. Indeed, despite the fact we largely focus on the changes that face the workforce that originate in technology, many of the drivers are not technological in their nature – globalisation, climate change, resource conflicts, population movements and cultural change will be major influences in the coming decades. Although we tend to think of technological change as the driver of change, this is perhaps the wrong way to look at it – it suggests that we have no option. In fact, whether or not we choose to adopt particular technologies is a matter of policy and choice.
Education emerged as a major theme. A society cannot progress unless it educates its people. The challenge is to ensure that education is well directed and that we educate our people the right fields. We heard about the extraordinary advances in computing technology and how this would change the nature of work over the next 20 years – perhaps 40% of today's jobs will disappear. But this need not be a looming social disaster because headlines about such projections tend to overlook the rate of job creation. If job creation is greater than job destruction, the technology will end up providing a net benefit. But such disruption itself causes problems and the workforce and the communities in which they work need to be resilient and to be able to embrace change. Historically, Australia has done well in this as evidenced in places like Newcastle and Wollongong but there are always winners and losers – we need to be sure that communities in individuals are not destroyed in the process. It is also important that as a nation, we do not consider these issues in isolation. Workforces in Asia, for example, have very high migrant workforces – the movement of people and the cultural and social issues and challenges that these introduce will be an important factor as we plan for the future.
The Governor summed up, emphasising that our future might be defined in terms of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Over the next 20 or 30 years, the rate of change will be great and the challenge for the nation is how we engage with these issues. Technology should not be the driver – it should be the tool to help us define what we want to be as a nation.
The Society thanks the speakers and the panellists for their extremely rich and diverse insights and, in particular, thanks the organising committee of the Forum, Dr Donald Hector, Dr David Cook, Professor Ian Dawes, Professor Max Crossley, Professor John Gascoigne, Professor Heather Goodall, Dr Des Griffin, Mr John Hardie, Dr Richard Sheldrake and Professor Ian Wilkinson for putting together such a stimulating programme. We also thank The University of Sydney Business School for their sponsorship of the event